Genetic drift and the population history of the Irish travellers

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Abstract

The Irish Travellers are an itinerant group in Ireland that has been socially isolated. Two hypotheses have been proposed concerning the genetic origin of the Travellers: (1) they are genetically related to Roma populations in Europe that share a nomadic lifestyle or (2) they are of Irish origin, and genetic differences from the rest of Ireland reflect genetic drift. These hypotheses were tested using data on 33 alleles from 12 red blood cell polymorphism loci. Comparison with other European, Roma, and Indian populations shows that the Travellers are genetically distinct from the Roma and Indian populations and most genetically similar to Ireland, in agreement with earlier genetic analyses of the Travellers. However, the Travellers are still genetically distinct from other Irish populations, which could reflect some external gene flow and/or the action of genetic drift in a small group that was descended from a small number of founders. In order to test the drift hypothesis, we analyzed genetic distances comparing the Travellers to four geographic regions in Ireland. These distances were then compared with adjusted distances that account for differential genetic drift using a method developed by Relethford (Hum Biol 68 (1996) 29–44). The unadjusted distances show the genetic distinctiveness of the Travellers. After adjustment for the expected effects of genetic drift, the Travellers are equidistant from the other Irish samples, showing their Irish origins and population history. The observed genetic differences are thus a reflection of genetic drift, and there is no evidence of any external gene flow. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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